Christopher Columbus

"Columbus attained the honor of first making known to the inhabitants of Europe the existence of a Western Continent, belonging to Spain, as a nation, and to Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, as an individual.

Columbus was born about the year 1435 or 1436. His father was a reputable and meritorious man; by occupation, a wool-comber, long resident in the city of Genoa. Columbus was the eldest of four children, having two brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, and one sister. His early education was limited; but he diligently improved the advantages which the means of his father enabled him to enjoy. After spending a short time at the University of Pavia, he returned to his father, whom he assisted in wool-combing. His enterprising disposition, however, prompted him to more active employment; and, at the age of fourteen years, we find him entering upon a seafaring life.

Having spent some time in the service of a distant relation, who followed the seas, he repaired to Lisbon. He was at this time about thirty-four years of age; a tall, well-formed, vigorous man; enterprising in his disposition, and uncommonly dignified in his manners. Taking up his residence, for a time, at Lisbon, he became acquainted with and married the daughter of a distinguished navigator, Bartholomew Perestrello, the former governor of Porto Santo, an island in the vicinity of Madeira.

The father of his wife being dead, Columbus resided with his mother-in-law, who gave him the privilege of examining the charts and journals of her deceased husband. These made Columbus acquainted with many facts and suggestions touching the enterprise in which the Portuguese were engaged, namely, the discovery of a passage to the East Indies, by doubling the southern extremity of Africa.

To a mind like that of Columbus, this subject was invested with the deepest interest; and the more he read and reflected upon the figure of the earth, the stronger was his belief, not only that a western passage to India was practicable, but that a large body of land lay west of the Atlantic, designed to balance the lands lying in the eastern hemisphere.

In this latter opinion he was strengthened by various discoveries in the Atlantic, such as pieces of carved wood, and trunks of huge pine trees, which had been noticed, after long westerly winds; but, especially, by the well established fact, that the bodies of two men had been cast upon one of the Azores Islands, whose features differed from those of any known race of people.

Having matured the plan of a voyage, with the above object in view, he first offered to sail under the patronage of his countrymen, the Genoese; but they rejected his proposal. He next applied to the Portuguese. The king and his advisors, however, long detained him; and, meanwhile, availing themselves of his explanations, secretly dispatched a vessel to make the proposed discovery, but without success. Thus being disappointed in this application also, and despairing of assistance from Henry VII of England—to whom he had sent his brother Bartholomew, but who, being captured by pirates, did not reach England for some time—he next repaired to Spain.

By what route, or by what means, Columbus reached Spain is uncertain. The first trace we have of him in this country is as a stranger, on foot, and in humble guise, stopping at the gate of the convent of Santa Maria de Rabida, not for from the little seaport of Palos, and asking of the porter of a little bread and water for a child—his son Diego, whom his deceased wife had left him. While receiving this humble refreshment, the prior of the convent, happening to pass by, was struck with the acquaintance of a stranger; and observing, from his air and accent, that he was a foreigner, entered into conversation with him, and soon learned the particulars of his story, and entered warmly into his views and plans. Through the prior's influence, the enterprising navigator was enabled to lay his plans before Ferdinand and Isabella, then on the united thrones of Castile and Arragon.

For a time, those sovereigns were deaf to his application; but at length, the queen undertook the enterprise, on behalf of the crown of Castile; and, to defray the expense of the outfit and voyage, offered to part with her royal jewels. The necessary funds being thus provided, a fleet, consisting of three small vessels, was soon ready for the voyage.

Two of these were light barks, called caravals, not superior to river and coasting craft of more modern days. These were open, without deck in the center, but built high at the prow and stern, with forecastles and cabins for accommodation of the crew. The names of the vessels were the Pinta and Nina. The ship of Columbus, the Santa Maria, was decked, and of larger dimensions. On board this fleet were ninety mariners, together with various private adventurers, in all, one hundred and twenty persons.

On Friday, the 13th of August, 1492, the squadron of Columbus set sail from Palos, steering in a southwesterly direction for the, Canary Islands, whence it was his intention to strike due west.

Passing over many incidents in their outward voyage; the storms and tempests which they encountered; the delusive appearances of land; their hopes and their fears; their excitement and then their dejection, the murmurs, and even mutinous spirit of the crew; and the happy expedients of Columbus to raise their courage, and to keep burning within them the spirit of the enterprise, we arrive at the 20th of October, at which time the indications of land were so strong, that, at night, Columbus ordered a double watch on the forecastle of each vessel, and promised to the first discoverer of the long looked for land a doublet of velvet, in addition to the pension of thirty crowns which had been offered by Ferdinand and Isabella.

The greatest animation now prevailed throughout the ships; not an eye was closed that night. As evening darkened, Columbus took his station on the top of the castle or cabin, on the high poop of his vessel. However he might carry a cheerful and confident countenance during the day, it was to him a time of the most painful anxiety. And now, when wrapped by the shades of night from observation, he maintained an intense and unremitting watch. Suddenly, about ten o'clock, he beheld, he thought a light glimmering at a distance. Fearing that his hopes might deceive him, he called to Pedro Gutierrez, gentleman of the King's bed-chamber, and demanded whether he saw a light in that direction; the latter replied in the affirmative.

Columbus, yet doubtful, called Roderigo Sanchez, of Segovia, and made the inquiry.

By the time the latter had ascended the round-house, the light had disappeared. They saw it once or twice afterwards, in sudden and passing gleams, as if it were a torch in the bark of a fisherman, rising and sinking with the waves. So transient and uncertain were these gleams, that few attached any importance to them. Columbus, however, considered them as certain signs of land; and, moreover, that the land was inhabited.

They continued their course until two in the morning, when a gun from the Pinta gave the joyful signal of land. It was first described by a mariner, named Roderigo de Friana; but the reward was afterwards adjudged to the admiral, for having previously perceived the light. The land was now clearly seen about two leagues distant; whereupon they took in sail, and laid to, waiting impatiently for the dawn.

The morning arrived, October 12th, and before the delighted Spaniards lay a level and beautiful island, called by the natives Guanahani, but to which Columbus gave the name of San Salvador. This island, known on English maps by the name of Cat Island, was several leagues in extent, of great freshness and verdure, and was covered with trees, like a continual orchard.

Columbus, in a rich dress, and with a drawn sword, soon after landed with his men, with whom, having kneeled and kissed the ground with tears of' joy, he took possession of the island, in the name of Queen Isabella, his patron. On landing, the Spaniards were surprised to find a race of' people quite unlike any that they had ever seen before. They were of a dusky copper-color, naked, beardless, with long black hair, floating on their shoulders, or bound in tresses round their heads. The natives were still more surprised at the sight of the Spaniards, whom they considered as the children of the sun, their idol. The ships they looked upon as animals, with eyes of lightning and voices of thunder.

Having spent some time in an examination of this island, he proceeded to visit several others not far distant; and at length, on 7th of November, came in sight of the island of Cuba, and not long after the Island of Hispaniola, or San Domingo.

Having spent some time in examining the country, and in traffic with the natives, Columbus set sail on his return. He was overtaken by a tremendous storm during which he enclosed in a cake of wax: a short account of his voyage and discovery, which he put into a tight cask, and threw it into the sea, hoping that, if he perished, it might fall into the hands of some navigator, or be cast ashore, and thus the knowledge of his discovery be preserved to the world. But the storm abated, and he arrived safe in Spain in March, 1493.

For this discovery, which laid the foundation for all subsequent discoveries in America, Columbus was entitled to the honor of giving name to the New World. But he was robbed of it by the address of Americus Vespucius. This adventurer was a Florentine, who sailed to the New World in 1499, with one Alonzo Ojeda, who had accompanied Columbus in his first voyage. On his return, he published so flattering an account of his voyage. that his name was given to the continent, a manifest injustice to Columbus.

After this, Columbus made a second and third voyage; in the latter of which he discovered the continent, near the mouth of the river Orinoco. This was August 10th, 1498. Yet he was ignorant at the time, that the land in question was anything more than an island.

During this third voyage, Columbus was destined to experience severe afflictions. After his departure from Spain, having been appointed governor of the New World, his enemies, by false representations, persuaded the king to appoint another in his place. At the same time, the king was induced to give orders that Columbus should be seized and sent to Spain. This order was executed with rigid severity; and the heroic Columbus returned to Spain in Irons!

On his arrival, he was set at liberty by the king; but he never recovered his authority. Soon after his return from a. fourth voyage, finding Isabella, his patroness, dead, and himself neglected, he sunk beneath his misfortunes and infirmities, and expired at Valladolid on the 30th of May, 1506, or 1507. His last words were, "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit."

The body of Columbus was deposited in the convent of St. Francisco, but was afterwards removed to a monastery at Seville, where, for a time, it rested, with the remains of his son Diego. The bodies of both, however, were afterwards removed to Hispaniola, and here again disinterred, and conveyed to Havana, in the island of Cuba. It is now believed that the wrong body may have been shipped to Cuba in 1795, and his remains were possibly discovered in Santo Domingo in 1877.

We shall conclude this notice of the great pioneer to this western world, in the eloquent language of' the author to whom we have been indebted for the principal incidents in the life of this illustrious man. Irving said, "He [Columbus] died in ignorance of the real grandeur of his discovery. Until his last breath, he entertained the idea that he had merely opened a new way to the old resorts of opulent commerce, and had discovered some of the wild regions of the East. He supposed Hispaniola to be the ancient Ophir, which had been visited by the ships of Solomon; and that Cuba and Terra Firma were but remote parts of Asia. What visions of glory would have broken upon his mind, could he have known that he had indeed discovered a new continent, equal to the whole of the old world in magnitude, and separated by two vast oceans from all the earth hitherto known by civilized man!"


— A History of the United States, by Charles A. Goodrich, 1857 (edited)


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